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Transitional house for release convicts draws opposition

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
A proposed transitional house on South Ellis Street for men just released from prison has drawn opposition from neighboring residents and property owners.
But the Rev. Clary Phelps said Tuesday the men who would live in the “House of Hope” at 730 S. Ellis St. have paid their debt to society and should have the opportunity to “make corrections in their lives.”
Westside Community Foundation Inc., a newly organized nonprofit which would oversee the group care facility, would like to establish the House of Hope in an existing two-story house.
Phelps is pastor of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church at 719 S. Caldwell St., and Westside Community Foundation is a mission outgrowth of the church. Phelps said the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission has awarded Westside $245,000 for the transitional housing program.
He said it also has the endorsement of Police Chief Mark Wilhelm, who is a member of the foundation board, and Mayor Susan Kluttz wrote a letter of recommendation. Phelps added that Salisbury High School officials had not opposed the facility.
The high school is about a block away from the proposed home, which backs up to the church’s property.
Westside Community Foundation is seeking a special-use permit from the city to allow for the reentry program in the neighborhood. Phelps said the home would serve annually up to 16 males, between the ages of 21 and 45.
A maximum of eight would be in the House of Hope at one time, he added.
The property is zoned Urban Residential 12, which allows “group care facilities” with approval of a special-use permit.
Additional conditions require that the structure must maintain an appearance of a residence compatible with the surrounding neighborhood. It also must be permitted with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Salisbury Planning Board held a hearing on the special-use permit Tuesday. As part of recommending approval of a permit ó final approval must come from the Salisbury City Council ó the Planning Board had to find, among other things, that “the public health, safety and welfare will be assured and the proposed development will not substantially injure the value of adjoining property and associated uses.”
Planning Board member Valarie Stewart said she didn’t hear enough information Tuesday to satisfy that standard, and she pushed for the matter to be sent to committee. Other planners agreed, and a committee will meet at 5 p.m. June 5 at City Hall.
Maggie Blackwell of the Planning Board said it would be helpful if representatives from the Police Department and Salisbury High could attend that meeting and that Phelps provide a business plan to answer a lot of the questions people had Tuesday.
The Planning Board members and citizens who spoke against the home said it was a good mission in theory and that everybody deserves a second chance. But residents said the home would be operating in a neighborhood that already has problems.
Planning Board member Dick Huffman said it’s also the classic NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) situation. The the proximity to the high school raises concerns, too, he said.
Huffman recommended that Phelps hold a meeting with residents in the neighborhood to determine if there’s a middle ground both sides could agree on.
Brenda McNeely of 614 S. Ellis St. said she didn’t want to live in fear and questioned bringing in this type of transitional home in an already troubled neighborhood.
“I want to know my grandchildren can go outside and play,” she said.
Eva Gatewood lives across the street from the proposed House of Hope and said she would be worried for her three small children. She suggested that sex offenders and attempted murderers could be in the home.
“To put that in our laps ó we hear sirens all night anyway,” she said.
Donald Moore Sr., a Craige Street resident, said the area already has high school fights, gang problems, purse snatchings and buildings that have been shot up. “Think about this carefully,” he said. “Would you want this in your community if there are safety hazards?”
Kay and Norde Wilson, owners of a large swath of rental property adjoining this area, described their efforts over many years to have good tenants who feel part of a community.
“Bringing strangers into the neighborhood just doesn’t work,” Kay Wilson said.
She added the House of Hope is a good idea for somewhere, but not close to a school or a residential neighborhood.
Phelps said men who have served their time in prison should not be looked on as thugs or criminals any longer. “If we cast them out,” communities are only asking for more trouble, he warned.
Phelps said House of Hope would have no sex offenders and men living there will have gone through a pre-release screening and interview process. The program’s key objective is to help the men find a job. It would provide full-time staff at the house, counselors, caseworkers and transportation to and from work for the men.
Phelps expected the men to come from Piedmont Correctional Institution.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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